As China’s Guangzhou Evergrande and United Arab Emirates outfit Al-Ahli prepare for the second leg of the AFC Champions League final this weekend, Paul Williams recalls the time when Thailand's BEC Tero nearly ran away with the trophy…
The record books will show Al Ain as the inaugural winners of the AFC Champions League in 2002-03, but it could so easily have gone the other way had a little more luck fallen the way of their opponents, unfancied Thai side BEC Tero Sasana.
Little was expected from BEC Tero as they prepared to contest the first AFC Champions League, not just from the outside but also within the team itself.
We were in a must-win situation. If we had drawn we would have gone home.
Legendary Thai coach Attaphol Buspakom, who sadly passed away earlier this year, admitted in an interview in 2013 that his goal was simply to make it out of the group.
"It was the first time BEC Tero Sasana had played in a tournament like this and our goal was just to advance to the next round, as we were not a big team compared to the other teams,” Attaphol said in September 2013. “The teams playing in the AFC Champions League were much bigger and much stronger.”
What they did have on their side was home ground advantage. The format of the AFC Champions League in 2002-03 meant all group games were played in a single city in the space of just five days. Bangkok was chosen to host the matches in Group A, which also contained Korea’s Daejeon Citizen, China’s Shanghai Shenhua and Japan’s Kashima Antlers.
“Playing at home in front of the home crowd was very special,” midfielder Therdsak Chaiman, now with Chonburi, told FourFourTwo. “Their support really pushed us further.”
Their first match was against Kashima Antlers at the Supachalasai Stadium in Bangkok. Despite falling behind early, a brace from Wuttiya Yongant, including an equaliser in the 90th minute, earned the home side a valuable 2-2 draw.
That was followed by an impressive 2-0 win against Daejeon Citizen with goals from Therdsak and 19-year-old attacker Panai Kongpraphan.
Their final group game against Shanghai Shenhua, their third match in just five days, would decide their fate. A win was needed to guarantee their progression to the knockout rounds. Out of the 16 participants, only the four group winners would reach the semi-finals.
“We had to play three games in five days, which was hard,” remarked Attaphol. “We knew we were weaker than our opponents as we were new to the competition, but we always tried to play as a team.”
Despite considering themselves rank underdogs, BEC Tero took the lead midway through the first half when Jatupong Thongsukh got in behind the Shanghai defence to volley his side into the lead.
Honduran striker Saul Martinez then levelled things up for the Chinese side just before the hour mark.
With just over five minutes remaining and the scores locked at 1-1, Therdsak produced a moment of magic. Receiving the ball inside his own half, he ran at the disorganised Shanghai defence.
“We were in a must-win situation in order to make it through to the next round. If we had drawn we would have gone home,” the 42-year-old said, replaying the moment in his mind.
“I dribbled the ball down with the intention to pass but the moment of the game allowed me to dribble in to the penalty box. I saw the goalkeeper was standing in a disadvantageous position so I shot and with a little luck, I scored.”
His account of the goal is typically modest; his left foot thunderbolt – which was from well outside the box – was worthy of winning a UEFA Champions League match, let alone a game in Asia’s fledgling showpiece.
Video: Check out the highlights from the first leg of the final below